Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Developing a Game Vocabulary

I was recently invited to play in a play-by-post Rogue Trader game. I don’t have much experience with the Warhammer 40K universe, which turns out to be a vast, diverse chaos of goodness. It’s got so much going on that fellow blogger Greywulf proposed that WotC adopt the Games Workshop model for their own signature setting. That’s a discussion for another day (check out the comments and Greywulf’s post for various viewpoints on that.)

Abilities and Skills
Going through the character generation process for Rogue Trader as a total newb, I struggled with some parts and was struck by a few ideas that were new to me. In particular, characteristics (which are abilities in other games, the classics like strength, intelligence, etc.) are what drive the chance at succeeding in skill checks. Other game systems often use the model of ability modifier plus skill competence, and allow players to increase their competence with individual skills.

So, using generic abilities (I’m not going to reference a specific game for this example) such as dexterity, a player might choose skills like picking locks and escaping bonds. In the Rogue Trader model a player would increase their dexterity as part of their advancement, and this would in turn mean that they’d be able to both pick locks and escape bonds better. Given that these two skills are pretty different in their execution, I wonder if that’s a good model?

To play devil’s advocate, I suppose it depends on what type of model you’re targeting. One of the design considerations that I’ve prioritized in my home game is that it be simple to execute, yet be rich in strategic options. Focusing on buying competence in specific skills means that players more clearly define their character (from a game-mechanical role perspective.) But buying advances in abilities means that the player has access possibilities of success in a broader range of skill checks, while still providing some role information (e.g., a character with advanced dexterity is more likely to succeed at a range of dexterity-related skills, while another with advanced constitution might be able to more readily endure a variety of conditional challenges.)

Which model then is better? It seems like advancing the ability modifier is simpler to execute. Characters in RPGs often have fewer abilities than skill choices. Would prioritizing ability advances lead to super characters ridiculously competent at all skills related to that ability? This would depend on how extensive the game’s skill list was (I have a rather lengthy list of skills in my rules) and how they were implemented. Are characters automatically granted access to all skills governed by specific abilities, or must they identify skills in which they’ve trained?

I’m thinking out loud here, and interested in hearing any thoughts you might have on the matter. My goal in this little thought experiment is to see if there is a better character generation and advancement system for abilities and skills.

Character and Party Origins
Another intriguing aspect of Rogue Trader character generation was the origin path idea. In a nutshell, players are given a grid of options that include Home World (planets or systems of origin have particular characteristics such as Forge Worlds that emphasize technical mastery, or Hive Worlds that consist of densely-packed environments where social skills play a larger role); Birthright (which is a character’s general role in society, influenced of course by choice of Home World); Trials and Travails (outlining some event of momentous significance to the character) and Motivation and Career, among others.

Players plot a flow-chart path through the grid and turn in their results to the GM. The GM in turn plots the paths of each party member and then gives feedback to the players about where they overlap. It’s in the overlaps that players forge the backstory behind their assembly into a party.

I thought this was a brilliant system. While it does hold some significant limitations (the grid elements and how they are arranged can provide road blocks as well as inspiration in character generation), it seemed like a structure that could be readily adapted to other game systems and campaign settings.

Mike over at Wrathofzombie has a massive vocabulary of games that he has experimented with, disassembled, and re-forged into some cool rule and setting options. I’m starting to get a taste of what expanding my game vocabulary can mean to my own game. One of the challenges in pondering the creation of a sort of Frankengame, is choosing elements with natural synergies, and trying to ensure they don’t disrupt overall game balance. Maintaining the focus on simple execution, strategy-rich rules is key. Some great ideas may have to be left out. They need to be sampled however, just to keep the game vocabulary sharp.


  1. Aaaaaawww.. You DO care;) "One of the challenges in pondering the creation of a sort of Frankengame, is choosing elements with natural synergies, and trying to ensure they don’t disrupt overall game balance. Maintaining the focus on simple execution, strategy-rich rules is key" That right there is the biggest hurdle that I kept jumping over when hacking all these different games and merging them into some sort of awesomesauce.

    One thing that finally helped me was discovering Castles and Crusades. When I first started shaving all the shit I didn't like or felt I/we needed at my table with Pathfinder I just kept hitting block after block.. Remove X in 3.X and Y doesn't work or needs a total rewrite. When I found C&C and saw that it was A) inspired by both 3.x and older editions of DnD and B) a completely unified mechanic I was extremely excited about that.

    At that point I just took what worked from Pathfinder and added it to C&C. Keeping the unified mechanic in mind. In the end now the game I'm playing is a hodge-podge of Pathfinder, C&C, Lamentations of the Flame Princes, Vornheim/Zak S. awesome helpful shit, Crypts and Things, and other cool bits I've garnered from blogs. I'm finally happy;) Now I want to reskin spells and monsters.. ha! My work is never done!

  2. @WoZ: Absolutely! Now, if only I could read as fast as you write!

    Finding a good framework (as you've done with C&C) is clearly essential to Frankengaming. One mistake I've made is thinking about the chargen separately from monsters/challenges.

    I think that has to happen in concert, with related math if that applies. If only to make running games easier as the GM or, (more specifically) prepping games.